SOCCER COACHING 3 TO 4 YEAR OLDS (4 & UNDER – U4/4U)
The First Introduction to Soccer as an “Organized Sport”
Three years old is not too young for children to be introduced to the outdoor sport of soccer. Under the proper conditions, 3- and 4-year olds will enjoy this new experience.
This document is presented within the framework of the CoachingAmericanSoccer.com® “Youth Soccer Coaching Manual for an Instructional Soccer Program Applicable to Pre-Kindergarten through Under-7.” (Readers are strongly encouraged to review the entire Manual first, on-line, at www.CoachingAmericanSoccer.com.) This is an outdoor program designed to introduce young children to soccer for the first time. The concepts contained within the Manual that are particularly relevant to this age group include:
Practices on Saturday Mornings only – not weeknights: The children this age are usually fresh and rested on Saturday mornings. Even so, they can go up-and-down due to things such as illness, getting a bunch of shots at the pediatrician the day before, or staying up too late the night before. As a result, they may be okay one practice but not the next. Saturday mornings, however, provide the greatest opportunity for 3- and 4- year-old children to be at their best. On weeknights, children this age are usually tired from their day, can be cranky and, if they have been at extended day care early and late, they may just want to go home. Practices should be no longer than 45-minutes.
Introduce Soccer as Playtime – not competitive games: Competitive games (two teams set against each other) are the opposite of what children this age are being taught in pre-school. At pre-school, they are being taught to share; to be nice; not to push, shove, or run into others; and to respect the space of their classmates. They are expected to play well with others and are usually admonished if they do not do so. “Play” at this age looks nothing like a competitive soccer game. Play for these children usually does not have a specific goal, is not on a timed schedule, and can generally start and stop at the child’s discretion. Play at this age is generally not “with” other children, but “beside” other children. It is certainly not “against” other children. Play is supposed to be fun. It is not supposed to be a huge contradiction. Competitive soccer games are overwhelming and make no sense to 3- and 4-year-olds. Children this age are usually intimidated by the extra people and the noise (adults screaming “encouragement” from the sidelines sounds like anger), not to mention the collisions. They may refuse to get in the car to go to competitive games or, while at a game, will stall, sit on the sidelines and refuse to play. This can easily lead to not even wanting to go to practices or to just “hate soccer” altogether. Another downside to competitive games is that they can bring out the worst in some parents (adults screaming criticism).
Learning as Fun – not lectures: A proper introduction to the sport of soccer for this age group focuses on having “fun.” Activities need to be fast-paced, with minimal instruction time, should encourage silliness and laughter, and should not last too long before the next one is introduced. The entire concept of utilizing “soccer fun games” to encourage children to enjoy the sport starts here. In addition to instruction in proper ball techniques, a fun environment provides responsible listening, cognitive learning, and socialization skills. Further, it promotes the shift from individual to group learning and introduces the concept of “team.” See particularly those games within CoachingAmericanSoccer.com “SOCCER FUN GAMES” identified as “Tested and Confirmed for 3-year-olds and up.”
Parent-Child Practices – a time of transition, not a dramatic break: If allowed by the Club structure and acceptable to the coach, parents are encouraged to participate with their child during the introductory season. There are extremely significant benefits to be derived from the participation of a helpful, responsible, concerned parent interacting with his or her child during practices at this age. In the majority of cases, this is the child’s first exposure to soccer – or to an organized sport of any kind. At first, the children are likely to be nervous, anxious, or have no idea what to expect. The on-field presence of the parent is almost always calming and reassuring. Beyond that, parents can become a small army of assistant coaches. They can provide constant one-on-one instruction and produce a significant increase in the number of ball touches. In addition, children are more likely to understand and respond to a parent who, being most familiar with their child, is more likely to talk to them in a way that they can understand best and to understand what their child is trying to express in return.
MEET THE THREE-YEAR OLD
First and foremost, the chronological age of the child really matters. Physical maturity based on age permits the child to be able to properly participate at the activity level expected. Two-years old is too young for this program. Three-and-one-half years old and above is better and just-turned-four is optimal. Still, this does not account for the emotional maturity of the child. Children who are demonstrably “outgoing” and appear willing to “try new things” are likely to be ready. Children who tend to show behaviors of being “shy” or “stand-offish” will need special encouragement and extra attention. Some children are simply ready for this type of experience and some are not. Some children at this age are already capable of clearly showing their preferences for “more physical” versus “more intellectual” activities. The key is to provide the exposure and to appreciate and understand the child’s response.
Second, the children need to feel safe, secure, and comfortable, both on and off the field. Forcing a child to play soccer against their will can turn them off to the game forever. A reluctant child must not be forced or pushed. If they are, they can easily express that they “hate” soccer, or worse, that they “hate” their parents for “making them go.” These are not helpful emotions and must not be allowed to become protracted behaviors. Coaches must allow children to go to their parents for comfort. Parents must provide the comfort. Some children may just be too young physically, emotionally, and/or cognitively. Six-months to one-year older can make all the difference. A poor reaction to the first exposure to soccer does not necessarily mean that it is permanent. Parents who may find themselves in this situation should be encouraged to let their children try again next season.
Third, it must be recognized and appreciated that three-year-olds are experiencing so many things in their lives that they can exhibit a wide range of reactions to their first exposure to the “soccer environment.” Most children like to try new things. Those children with older siblings who have already been introduced to the sport can be ready to go and can’t wait to start kicking. These children want to keep up with their older brother or sister and tend to want to know “what’s next?” Those children with no previous exposure to “organized sports” probably have no idea what is going to happen to them and are likely to be very anxious. In either case, children this age are just learning language and are trying to deal with a flood of emotions. As such, they do not yet have a real mechanism for expressing their feelings other than by saying “no,” refusing to participate, or by crying. These responses are normal. A child that goes to tears, falls to the ground, or just otherwise melts down, can be tired, hungry, sick, exhausted, over-stimulated, over-heated, or just “having a bad day.” They must not be chastised.
It is extremely important to recognize that every child is different and each child’s needs are to be addressed accordingly. Boys may be more likely to “rough-house,” while girls may be more deliberate in their movements. Both are perfectly reasonable.
MEET THE PARENTS
Parents of three-year-olds, especially if it is their first child, may also be experiencing their initial exposure to “organized sports” and they are undergoing a similar learning curve as the child. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of parents are positive and eager to participate if they can.
These parents are positive, helpful, useful, want to see and to help their child succeed, to get exercise, and to learn soccer. They tend to like to play with their child, can help reinforce concepts, and are serious about introducing their child to new things. These parents are likely to be ready and willing to join the activities, are excited about the prospect of learning soccer themselves, and are willing to volunteer to provide other assistance. Due to the soccer explosion in the United States during the past 40 years, most of these parents have been exposed to soccer or may have actively played in the past. (Even active grandparents can be the same!) These parents are to be praised by the coach and they should be provided with every possible opportunity to assist.
Unfortunately, there are other parents who, for whatever reasons, may choose not to participate. They tend to be the ones who are on their phones and do not provide the attention and positive encouragement their children crave and actively seek. They also may be the ones that are extremely negative in general and have parenting “styles” that are critical or dismissive. They are not to be confronted in any way. Having been given the opportunity, if they decline to participate the subject should then be dropped. Remember that it’s all about the children!
The following is general guidance for coaches at this age group:
If possible, send out an introductory e-mail before the start of the first session. (See below.)
Parents or a caregiver must be present and accountable for each and every child at all times.
Children are probably familiar with the word and concept of “teacher,” but not the word “coach.” Introduce to the children that “coach” means “teacher.”
Praise, praise, praise – use high fives, low fives, “awesome,” “great job,” “I’m proud of you” and other physical and verbal actions of praise for each child at every session.
Involve older siblings if you can – most have soccer experience and would just love to participate.
Recognize legitimate complications for parent participation: such as having to watch younger siblings or mom is pregnant.
Equipment: Portable-collapsible goals/nets are better than cones as goals because they represent a real target. Cones are generally too conceptual at this age. It is better to have two pair of goals, if possible and you can afford them, because they significantly improve the number of activities that can be used and reduce the number of players at each goal. Also, if you can afford it, buying goals without nets, or cutting out the nets, keeps kids from sitting in or playing inside the nets and allows balls to go through and not have to be dug out.
Children this age have a short attention span – keep it moving; use brief directions; there should be no sitting or standing around for too long. Implement the “Four L’s”: no lines, no lectures, no laps, and no bad language.
Note that the Inside-of-the-Foot kick/pass does not work with this age, but that the Instep Kick does.
Children this age generally do not like to wear shin guards, but they are mandatory. If parents find that their children dislike the commercial, stirrup- or sock-type guards, they can be informed to purchase the cheapest, simplest, slip-in pair available and then cut them down to size.
Heat: Children this age de-hydrate much faster than adults. Hot/tired/bothered means children that get cranky/quit. Frequent drink breaks are mandatory in hot weather.
Snacks – children this age love “snack time.” Set a schedule for each practice for parents to bring a snack and a drink for each child (and siblings…). (Ensure that backup is available if someone suddenly can’t make it.) The kids whose parents bring the snack and drinks love to hand them out. Please note to ask for such things as gluten-free or allergies, etc.
Hello, Soccer Families!
I KNOW THIS IS A LONG E-MAIL, BUT IT CONTAINS IMPORTANT INFORMATION. PLEASE TAKE THE TIME TO READ IT CAREFULLY. YOU MAY WISH TO PRINT AND/OR SAVE IT FOR FUTURE REFERENCE. THANK YOU!
My name is (Coach) and I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself to you as your child’s coach for the upcoming season for 3- and 4–year olds. I will ask the children to simply call me “Coach.” (Name) will act as my Assistant Coach and (Name) will act as my sideline proxy and Team Mom.
At the first meetings, I will be wearing (description). Warning! – At practices, I like to have the adults (one per child) participate whenever I can work them in!!! You don’t need “gear,” just appropriate shoes and clothes. In addition, I will be touching your child to demonstrate skills, technique, proper movement, and positioning. I also give handshakes, “high fives,” and hugs. Further, please note (any important Club item).
– Every child needs their own BALL. For this age group you should purchase a “SIZE 3.” It does not have to be expensive. Please print your LAST NAME on the ball in permanent marker. PLEASE BRING THE BALL TO EVERY PRACTICE.
– Every child is REQUIRED to wear SHIN GUARDS. Players are not allowed to participate without them! They do not have to be expensive. I recommend full, “ankle” (“pull-on,” “ankle-protection,” “stirrup”) guards in Youth Small (YS), Youth Medium (YM) or (YL), depending on the height of the child.
– SOCCER SHOES (“cleats”) are not required for this age, but they can be cute and the kids sure seem to love this different type of shoe. (Regular “tennis” shoes are fine.) The Club does “recommend” cleats, however. If you choose to get them, they should not be expensive (you may wish to try Payless or Walmart for a generic sports cleat or, if you are comfortable with the shoe size, on-line). They must have molded-rubber/synthetic soles.
Some of the large sports stores may put together package deals of shoes/shin guards/ balls.
– UNIFORMS (shirt to be provided by Club) are to be worn to all practices. If you wish, you may purchase black or dark navy shorts to enhance the uniform, “team” look. Inexpensive “soccer socks” should also be purchased. Shin guards are to be worn under the socks and the guards are expected to be fully covered.
– You should bring a WATER BOTTLE (or sports drink) to all practices. Water is best. There will be specific water breaks, especially during hot weather.
– Practices will START ON TIME AND END ON TIME. It is not a problem if you arrive late for a start. A PARENT RESPONSIBLE FOR EACH CHILD MUST BE PRESENT AT ALL TIMES and claim their child immediately at the end.
– A LIMITED NUMBER OF PORTABLE TOILETS are available at the field. Even so, it is strongly recommended that you back off on your child’s fluid intake before practices and have them use the bathroom just before you leave for the field. In this regard, please do not let your child carry their own water bottle in the car – – they have been known to just suck on it continually…
– Please ensure that your child is always APPROPRIATELY DRESSED for the weather. If the weather is cold, remember that you can always take things off, but you can’t put something on if you don’t have it.
– No child is to be forced to attend a practice. This is to be fun!
– You DO NOT have to contact me if you are going to miss a practice.
– There shall be NO “HEADING,” ever, for this age group, in practice or at home! At no time shall a ball be tossed or thrown at a child’s head in this age group, especially by an older sibling. Neither should a child be allowed to try to toss a ball up for themselves to try to head.
– Please use the county WEATHER LINE if there is a question about a practice or game being held: (xxx-xxx-xxxx). This may direct you to (url); click on “Cancellation Notice.”
Our team is designated as “(Name/Sponsor and/or Number).”
PRACTICES are scheduled for (time) every Saturday, starting (date) and ending (date), at the (name/location) field.* We will be on “FIELD (#).” Facing the fields from the parking lot, this is the (designation). Parents who are not participating need to remain on the sideline. Children may leave the field at any time to visit with their parents. Parents may enter the field at any time if their child needs attention.
“Picture Day” will be held at the field on (date). If it rains, the pictures will be taken on the same day and time as the scheduled practice, indoors at (location).
Again this year, the (Club) will be distributing personalized participation trophies at the end of the season. Your player’s first name, as submitted at registration, is expected to be used. If the name is incorrect, misspelled, or you would like to use a nickname, please notify me by (date).
PARKING: Please park only in designated spots. Violators parked in nearby private lots can be towed at their own expense!
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED NATIONALLY BY UNITED SOCCER COACHES IN THE “SOCCER JOURNAL,” March/April 2018, Vol. 63 No. 2, p. 32.
Youth Soccer Coaching Manual for an Instructional Soccer Program
© Copyright, John C. Harves